THE LANTERN OF ARDEN
Photos by Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography
Ann Evans takes a closer look at Astley’s St Mary the Virgin Church, once known as The Lantern of Arden.
If you explore the North Warwickshire village of Astley, you’ll discover two ancient and historic buildings which local people are rightly proud of. Firstly, Astley Castle (https://b-c-ing-u.com/architecture/a-hidden-gem-in-warwickshire-astley-castle/) and secondly, the nearby parish church of St Mary the Virgin. Both buildings were great sources of inspiration for the novelist George Eliot who based Knebley Abbey and Knebly Church in Scenes of Clerical Life upon the local castle and church. Additionally, her parents married in St Mary the Virgin.
But the history of this ancient church goes way back before the 19th century. It is inextricably linked with Astley Castle that stands just a stone’s throw away. Records show that a church stood on this site from as early as 1285. Sir Thomas Astley got permission to rebuild the church in 1343 as a collegiate establishment. The college buildings which stood to the north of the church between it and the castle moat, were used for training priests – and to pray for the souls of the Astley families who are buried there as well as the Grey family.
Originally, the church was built in the shape of a cross with a central tower and tall spire. This conspicuous landmark earned it the name of Lanthorn of Arden because a light was kept burning on its top to guide wayfarers through the surrounding Forest of Arden. Its present appearance is due to the changes and alterations that subsequent owners of the castle have implemented. In earlier times the church would have been much bigger, reflecting the wealth of its benefactor
Following King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534, the church fell into a state of disrepair but was restored and rebuilt by Sir Edward Chamberlayne who acquired the castle in 1600 and made good the damage in 1607/08 including building a new west tower. In 1674 the Newdegates of nearby Arbury Hall estate bought Astley Castle and made more changes to the local church.
Inside this peaceful and beautiful church, you are met with alabaster effigies in resting poses of some notable castle owners belonging to the Grey family. There would originally have been six more effigies before 1545. There are also so many fascinating aspects to the interior of the church, such as nine early 17th century painted texts on the walls of the nave. The north chancel window is decorated with re-used Medieval glass. A stone staircase leads up to the bell ringing chamber, where 5 bells hang from an oak frame – four inscribed 1607 and the tenor bell dated 1722. The pews are wooden Georgian and there are painted stalls of misericords which are very rare and date from the 14th century.
Outside, the quiet graveyard is atmospheric no matter what time of year you visit; while just a short distance away, stands Astley Castle with it’s new award-winning holiday accommodation melding the modern in with the ancient in remarkable style. And of course, beyond all this are the tranquil views of the Warwickshire countryside.
St Mary the Virgin Parish Church is a thriving parish church and if you go along for one of its services, or as a visitor, you are sure to find a warm welcome.